There are many differences between the over 15,000 students and many staff members at MSU. Our need to eat is not one of them. Serving so many meals, 12,000 a day according to the University Food Services (UFS), is an intimidating task.
UFS is responsible for the food in the dining halls, SUB food court, event catering and sporting events. One might think that, providing so many meals daily, they would be pros at satisfying their customers, but that’s far from the case.
In regards to university catering, their menu is expensive, especially for small offices and student organizations. They often have minimum order, which is logical for a catering service, but illogical if you’re looking to feed a small group of people. Why would you order from UFS if you don’t need that much food? Because you actually aren’t allowed to bring more affordable (and delicious) food or beverages to events. Keep that in mind next time you’re faced with those iceberg lettuce salads and mayo laden sandwiches.
What about the food options in the SUB? Here we see an array of deep-fried, over cooked and unhealthy food options, speckled with mediocre soups and a salad bar. From burgers to deep fried dough posing as Chinese food, the options are less than impressive. Avogadro’s, the wrap and sandwich spot, and the newly renovated Wild Flour downstairs, are increasingly popular because their products resemble something healthy and nourishing. Even this is a stretch though; it’s clear by the appearance and taste of the food that it’s heavily processed.
In the dining halls, there is much of the same. Late night snacks, for example, include burgers, cookies, milkshakes and fries. While the food options do vary slightly between the three halls, there is little hope for students with dietary restrictions. Jen Mikkelson, a sophomore with Celiac disease and a dairy allergy, shared that getting food that she can eat at MSU has been “astoundingly difficult.” Her options vary from gluten free bread and peanut butter to, on a good day, hummus, guacamole or a veggie burger. “I eat these same foods nearly every day,” she reports. If she eats gluten her body stops absorbing nutrients, and if she has dairy, she is met with a rash and severe stomach pain, so the stakes are high.
To have her needs met, she has to specify where and when she will be eating her meals, inform the dining halls when they are out of food she can eat, and create her own menus. She pointed out this is an unfair burden on her; she is paying for the service so she doesn’t have to plan her meals or make grocery lists. It’s also cost inefficient for the university. “At my previous school,” she pointed out, “And every other school I have visited, there were multiple vegetarian, vegan, gluten and other allergen-free options, all ready to go, just like everyone else’s [meals].” Changing this would not be hard. Making one hot allergen-free option for each meal paired with small changes like using vegetable oil instead of butter could transform her dining experience. Not to mention cutting costs for MSU and providing more healthy food for all students.
With so many issues, introducing some competition for the UFS would be a good idea; The attempt at Mexican food could be replaced by La Tinga, the Community Food Co-op could provide vegan and gluten-free options, Rice could sell Thai curries, or Whistle Pig could bring healthy and delicious Korean food. Alas, this isn’t possible. The closest an outside vender can get to feeding the facility and students of MSU on campus is applying to be a temporary event Vendor. If this case you are not allowed to charge anything for your product. You are allowed to give out either, “a single bite of a food item” or 2 ounces of beverage to each person, provided it is a Harrington Pepsi beverage due to the contract they have with UFS.
On the UFS’s website they boast their Montana Made Program is “dedicated to developing our local economy … engaging with our community and promoting the health of our patrons.” The community is legally not allowed to sell their products on campus or provide food for events, which hurts our local economy. The food the UFS serves is detrimental to the health of their patrons, especially if they have dietary restrictions. Their list of current Montana vendors online may seem impressive, but I have yet to find a sandwich made with On the Rise bread or a quesadilla with a dollop of Senorita’s salsa. With some exceptions, such as the delicious local beef, these words are no more than fluff.
The reasons for the UFS’s monopoly are largely health related. They are feeding a large number of people, and health regulations are more easily met if one entity is providing all of the food. This is logical from an administrative standpoint. It seems ridiculous, however, that as a land grant institution which focuses on agriculture, our food options are largely imported, heavily processed and generally unhealthy, all for the sake of our supposed health. We are claiming to be the home of “Montana’s best and brightest,” you’d think we could figure out a way to safely get truly healthy food while actually supporting the community. If our policies prohibit it, it may be time to change them.